The Arizona Cardinals have been a team of surprises in five seasons under head coach Ken Whisenhunt. He and Kurt Warner turned a 9-7 NFC West crown into an NFC Championship in 2008. The next year they lost in the divisional round to the New Orleans Saints in a game that has since become infamous for its place in the Saints' bounty scandal.
Whisenhunt and the Cardinals' brass have been trying to recapture that magic ever since, mostly by finding a replacement for Kurt Warner. Last season they sent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2nd-round pick to the Eagles in exchange for Kevin Kolb. Their new quarterback struggled before succumbing to a concussion, his second serious concussion in two years, which clouds his future as much as the question of whether or not he can ever be a consistent starter. The team's pursuit of Peyton Manning in free agency this year telegraphed some concerns.
Teams almost poached a couple of key leaders from the Cardinals in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton once again the made the rounds in head coach interviews. His work in Arizona is going to push him into the head coaching ranks sooner rather than later. Steve Keim, now the vice president of player personnel, was a general manager candidate this spring, before the team promoted him to GM Rod Graves' right hand man. It feels as though change is coming in Arizona, a lack of forward momentum this season will surely hasten that.
The Kevin Kolb era got off to a rough start. In Week 1, Kolb threw a pair if touchdown passes, but Patrick Peterson bailed his team out with a fourth quarter punt return touchdown for the win. Arizona lost the next six games. Over the final nine games the Cardinals went 7-2 to end the season at 8-8, good for second place in the NFC West. Kolb helped his team to a Week 13 win over Dallas with a game-winning touchdown in overtime, but he went back to the shelf for good after throwing one pass the next week against San Francisco.
Kolb was sacked 30 times, and the Cardinals offensive line allowed a total of 54 sacks last year, only one team allowed more. It was the second season in a row the Cardinals quarterbacks were sacked at least 50 times.
Arizona did have 42 sacks last season, which tied them for the fourth-most in the league. Outside linebacker Sam Acho, a 4th-round pick, accounted for seven sacks in a surprising debut. Opponents still averaged more than 230 passing yards per game. Safety Adrian Wilson was the most effective member of a secondary that struggled, while 1st-round pick Patrick Peterson adjusted to the pro game. Injuries to Greg Toler and Kerry Rhodes limited the secondary's effectiveness.
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Best Free Agent Pick Up
The Cardinals biggest free agent move was a short-lived courtship with Manning. Their best move was a under-the-radar deal with Steelers cornerback William Gay. He gives a young group of cornerbacks some experience, and he has a shot to start opposite Peterson. Left tackle Levi Brown was re-signed to a more reasonable contract, but after allowing 11 sacks last year it leaves observers to wonder whether or not this qualifies as a solution.
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2012 NFL Draft
Early returns on Rod Graves' draft class are positive. The offense got a big help with the addition of Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd, who should benefit from opponents bracketing Larry Fitzgerald. They managed to find 2nd-round caliber players in the 3rd and 4th rounds with Oklahoma cornerback Jamell Flemming and Mississippi offensive tackle Bobbie Massie. The latter should start immediately on the right side. They scored again in the 5th round with Senio Kelemte, who could earn a starting guard spot in training camp.
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From SB Nation's Revenge of the Birds
The Arizona Cardinals are better prepared to face the hated San Francisco 49ers. After years of season sweeps from either team, 2011 brought a season split. Now, with the offseason, the Cards are in even better shape. They added Michael Floyd in the draft. This alone will add a dimension to the Cardinals offense they haven't had since Anquan Boldin left. And we remember the days of Boldin mowing through Niner defenders.
The Cards also fortified the right side of the offensive line. First they grabbed former Niner Adam Snyder. He is an upgrade from Rex Hadnot and he will be familiar with San Fran schemes. Then they added Bobby Massie to anchor the right side at tackle. Considering the pressure Kevin Kolb and John Skelton faced against the Niners defense, this will give whoever starts more time to find their dynamic receivers.
At the same time, Arizona countered the Niners' attempts to get better at receiver. While they added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, Arizona added corner depth. Greg Toler returns from injury. They signed William Gay, a player who is well versed in the Ray Horton schemes. Then they drafted Jamell Fleming to add to it. Arizona now has more talent in the defensive backfield than it has in a long time.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
Arizona needs to capture the youth vote. Specifically, it needs a talented group of young players to have a big season in 2012. Nowhere is that more important than on the offensive line. Even if they no longer view Kevin Kolb or John Skelton as long term solutions, the Cardinals have to keep their passer upright long enough to find Fitzgerald and the others. On defense, Acho needs to prove that his rookie season was no fluke, and Patrick Peterson has to start showing signs of being a shutdown corner.